Who Are We at War With, and Who Is a Threat?

By Discovery Institute senior fellow John C. Wohlstetter. Originally published at The American Spectator.

We in the West have been coming to wrong conclusions in answering the above questions.

Our “war” confusion is that we aren’t necessarily at war with countries and/or terror groups whose leaders have declared war on us. Thus the Islamic Republic of Iran established in February 1979 by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has avowedly been at war with the West ever since. As a result our policies are constrained by the perception that we are not at war with such adversaries. And so now with Islamic State — IS, ISIS or IL — of whom the Obama administration now says that they are not yet a threat to the homeland.

There is a simple way to fix this: Our policy should be that if you want war with us you’ll get your wish. Thus we should declare war on Islamic State, as we should have done with Iran in February 1979. In doing so we need not send the 82nd Airborne or even drop bombs. This would be a juridical declaration of the true state of affairs between America and its war-making adversaries. The public would be prepared for possible future military action, and illusions that we can make peace with jihadists would be set aside. We would gain maximum freedom of action to employ strategic surprise.

Our “threat” confusion is that we think “not a threat to us yet” means we can safely wait before taking decisive action. Thus President Obama was told at least a year ago about the growing threat posed by ISIS, but he decided that ISIS had yet to become a threat to the United States. The cautionary tale of Iraq and the absence of WMD stockpiles of which we learned after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein will no doubt be raised anew. And it is a serious argument.

But so are contrary examples: Hitler was not the threat in 1936, when he moved into the Rhineland, that he became as of Sept. 1, 1939, when he invaded Poland, igniting a world war that was to claim 50 million lives. Our failure, in Winston Churchill’s tart 1919 phrase, to “strangle the Bolshevik baby in its crib,” less than two years after the 1917 “October Revolution” overthrew a social democratic government and led to 75 years of Communist tyranny and countless millions killed. A nuclear confrontation in 1962 that came perilously close to escalating to a nuclear conflagration could easily have claimed 200 million lives and devastated the United States and the former Soviet Union. But had we acted early to remove these threats there surely would have been learned disquisitions published as to why the use of force was not necessary in those cases. There is no way to definitively win alternate history arguments, as they concern roads not taken.

Also on the other side of the strategic ledger is the Mideast example of Israel’s June 7, 1981 bombing of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor, shortly before it was to go critical and begin producing fuel for an Iraqi atomic bomb. Had Israel not acted, Saddam would surely have had the bomb before he invaded Kuwait in 1990; after the 1991 Gulf War we discovered that Saddam was at most a year or two from making his first bomb. Saddam would have been able to threaten Turkey and Saudi Arabia with nuclear annihilation if they helped America eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait. The Gulf War coalition would likely never have been assembled, and Saddam would have been in position to control at least 25 percent of the world oil supply. It was not for nothing that then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney thanked the Israelis for the 1981 bombing that the Reagan administration formally condemned. (In private President Reagan had expressed admiration for the astonishing accuracy the Israel Air Force had achieved with dumb gravity bombs; speaking of the raid the president had told his national security adviser, Richard Allen, that “boys will be boys.”)

Adopting these policies requires that we shed once and for all our illusions that implacable enemies can be placated. Unless a Mikhail Gorbachev or Anwar Sadat somehow emerges in such Islamist places, such fantasies will leave us looking for diplomatic love in all the wrong places. For that we should not hold our breath.

Above all, declaring a state of war versus our mortal enemies will help liberate us from the tyranny of a political correctness that has this president and his minions describing as “workplace violence” the 2009 mass murder carried out by the Fort Hood Islamist terrorist; this was said of the man who carried a “soldier of Allah” business card and as he pulled the trigger shouted “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is great!”)

We should above all keep in mind the one that got away for 15 years, thanks to the Clinton administration’s fixation of treating terror as simply another serious crime, an attitude shared by the Obama crew. In 1996 Sudan’s Hassan al-Turabi offered to turn over a terrorist to American custody. Because it did not then see a prosecutable case, the administration turned down the Sudanese dictator’s offer. The terrorist then fled to Afghanistan, and made common cause with the Taliban. Known to few Americans then, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks engineered by his group, al-Qaeda, every sentient American came to know the name Osama bin Laden.

Had bin Laden then been taken into custody in 1996, his name would have been a minor historical footnote in arcane national security publications. Yet American and world history would have been very different between then and May 1, 2011. Of course, we would have seen myriad alternative history articles published, explaining how America had no legal case and thus traduced international law by taking bin Laden into custody and treating him as a war criminal. At the time, al-Qaeda was only about 100 strong. We never would have known the cavalcade of calamities that later befell us. The modern wave of Islamist terror could well have been deferred for a generation, or perhaps never have been launched.

But what of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the growing conflict in east Ukraine? We surely do not want to declare war, but could take steps to neutralize a growing threat. We could arm Kiev’s forces to enable them to check the creeping annexation of eastern Ukraine by Russian-backed rebels. If we don’t, fearing it provocative to do so, we tee up a worse possibility: Putin moves into the eastern, ethnically Russian sectors in Latvia and Estonia. All three Baltic nations are members of NATO, and thus America is legally obligated to use military force, if need be, to eject the Russians. An attack on any NATO member is an attack on all. Under Article 5 of the 1949 NATO Treaty the U.S. is as obligated to use force on behalf of the Baltics as it would be if Putin were to invade “Little Odessa” in Brooklyn. If America doesn’t act, neither will other NATO members. And overnight our alliances — worldwide, not just NATO — would be hollowed out.

Putin may not take such a risk; but by temperament a gambler, and with a burning desire to reincorporate Eastern Europe into Russia’s orbit, he just might try. As Hitler miscalculated, so might Putin do so. And then we could well find ourselves in a shooting war with Russia. Aiding Ukraine now — which we are obligated to do by the 1994 Budapest Memorandum under which Ukraine surrendered its nuclear arsenal to Russia in exchange for a security guarantee from the U.S. and U.K. & Russia — would send a clear signal that the Baltics be left alone. Sending more troops to the Baltics would make the warning even more effective. Such is highly advisable, given the failure of the Bush administration and its NATO allies to deter Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, and President Obama’s retreat from red lines — on Bashar Assad being removed and on Assad’s regime using WMD — that he denies ever having drawn in Syria.

So long as we keep in mind that declaring war does not mean the automatic use of military force, and that we are able to draw sensible lines in selecting countries and groups to whom we send aid, and which groups to target sooner rather than later, we can make sounder national security policy by moving early. Else we will see our strategic options effectively preempted by the march of geopolitical events.